Can Merced County’s aging jails deal with ultra-violent, problem inmates? Some say no

The arraignment of Reyes James Carrillo, 25, on new murder and attempted murder charges on July 2, 2019, calls into question jail facility enhancement efforts that have been delayed for years by Merced County and state bureaucracy, according to Sheriff Vern Warnke and the 2018-2019 Merced County Grand Jury Report.
The arraignment of Reyes James Carrillo, 25, on new murder and attempted murder charges on July 2, 2019, calls into question jail facility enhancement efforts that have been delayed for years by Merced County and state bureaucracy, according to Sheriff Vern Warnke and the 2018-2019 Merced County Grand Jury Report. Courtesy Merced County Sheriff's Office

State prisoner Reyes James Carrillo has a long, violent rap sheet.

The 25-year-old Merced man was sentenced last month by a Merced County jury to 50 years to life in prison after being found guilty of brutally killing Aaron Bonilla in a jail cell on June 11, 2017, at the Merced County Main Jail.

The reported gang member also is facing another murder charge for the 2015 slaying of 43-year-old Los Banos man Edward Soriano Ortez, who reportedly tried to leave a gang.

On Tuesday, Carrillo pleaded not guilty to an attempted murder charge, stemming from another beating at the Main Jail on May 18. In that case the victim, Joseph Alvarez, 37, was stabbed or slashed more than 12 times, according to correctional officers’ reports.

Courtesy Merced County Sheriff's Office

Carrillo’s attorneys requested for him to stay at the 50-year-old downtown Main Jail at 700 W. 22nd St. instead of being sent back to prison, so they can better discuss his cases with him.

But Merced County Deputy District Attorney Tyson McCoy objected. “Our local jail is not equipped to handle this kind of conduct,” McCoy said.

Merced County Judge Carol Ash agreed, and so does Merced County Sheriff Vern Warnke, who oversees the jail and has been frustrated by a delay to enhance jail facilities.

“(The Main Jail), the most secure one that’s downtown, was built in 1968,” Warnke said. “It’s not built for the type of violent criminals we have today.”

The Main Jail still has bars, a rarity in modern holding facilities, Warnke said, adding the jail has dedicated public works officials fixing and maintaining old features like the decades-old locking mechanism.

“It’s dangerous for inmates, and it’s more dangerous for correctional officers,” Warnke said. “Don’t think for a minute that inmates aren’t aware of weak points.”

Both county jails problematic

For years, county and state officials have been planning an expansion and renovation of another Merced County jail facility in order to house violent criminals like Carrillo — the John Latorraca Correctional Center, located at 2548 W. Sandy Mush Road near El Nido.

The first phase of the renovation would remodel existing dorm spaces at John Latorraca, bringing jail cells up to current code and security requirements, according to a bid request by Merced County.

The renovation would also add 30 new medical and mental health housing beds, a 10,000-square-foot services building, a new intake-transfer-release building, a new kitchen and laundry facilities, new administration buildings and additional enhancements to site security.

“The (project) was originally projected to break ground in the fall of 2017,” said Merced County spokesperson Mike North. “However, the process of working through the details with the state has resulted in some delays and pushed back the start date.”

But progress was being made, North said, noting construction could begin later this year or early 2020.

The county has already budgeted for match funding for the $40 million state grant, North said. Staff is exploring financing options for the second phase of the project that would expand the John Latorraca facility to house the dangerous criminals that are currently being routed through the Main Jail.

Delays have likely added additional inflation and costs of construction, Warnke said.

Grand jury slams Latorraca jail

The 2018-19 Merced County Grand Jury Report found that the John Latorraca facility was “in an advanced state of decay.”

Drywall separating bunk rooms have holes and mold, according to the report. Problems were also found with jail water lines, showers, boilers and inadequate dental treatment due to lack of qualified dentists.

The report found the funds for the jail renovation project haven’t been released by the state because Merced County hasn’t completed the requirements of the grant.

The report advised the Merced County administration to give the jail renovation grant its “highest priority.”

County officials said they can’t comment on the grand jury report before issuing an official statement, North said. But North said staffing shortfalls at state agencies slowed down progress of the project.

“All of the jail reconstruction projects throughout California are experiencing similar issues,” North said. “This is not unique to Merced.”

Inmates, others at risk

Until the expansion is completed, criminals with violent tendencies will remain to be a major concern for jail workers, Warnke said, putting the county at risk of litigation such as the $2 million lawsuit filed by Bonilla’s family against the county.

The Merced County Main Jail has experienced several attacks in addition to the incidents involving Carrillo.

Prison inmate Santiago Martinez, who Merced County District Attorney Kimberly Lewis’ office is trying as a death penalty case, is accused of killing a 20-year-old Modesto man in the Merced County Main Jail last year.

He was also convicted of attempted murder for a 2014 jail assault in San Joaquin County.

Six Merced County inmates were charged with murder in connection with a 2015 death of a an inmate at the Merced County Main Jail.

Convicted former Merced County priest Robert Gamel was beaten and kicked in the head by another inmate on May 11, 2017, at the Merced County Main Jail while awaiting a court hearing on a second child pornography possession charge.

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Vikaas Shanker is an award-winning reporter covering education, crime and courts for the Merced Sun-Star and Los Banos Enterprise. After growing up in Naperville, Illinois and graduating from the University of Kansas, he reported in several Chicago suburbs before moving to Merced County in 2016.